Obama, Congress Need to Better Explain the Budget Deficit Danger

The urgency of the problem and the gravity of the consequences aren’t coming through.

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This morning’s latest poll numbers from Pew are a confusing mish-mash of conflicting priorities and contradictory statements: The voters are still worried about the deficit and don’t want to increase spending, but...they don’t actually want to cut spending either. Some think the economy is getting better...some don’t. Some think jobs should be the top priority...but a growing number are worried about rising prices. There’s something for everybody in the poll, and I’m sure both sides will use the stats to their advantage. 

[ See editorial cartoons about the economy.]

But here’s what the confusing poll numbers say to me: there’s an urgent need for some public education here. I suspect many voters are worried about the deficit, but if you asked them what the economic consequences are of massive deficits, I’m not sure most people know. They’re worried about the size and scope of government, but I bet most people probably couldn’t tell you why reducing the national debt is something we must do, and do now. Despite what’s happened in Ireland and Greece, the urgency of the problem and the gravity of the consequences aren’t coming through.

I’ve been saying for months that the best thing both sides can do is to explain the dangers of deficits to the public in plain English--on podcasts, Saturday radio broadcasts, newspaper interviews, town hall meetings, iPad apps--on whatever platform Americans want. It doesn’t have to be all negative. It can be a just-the-facts presentation, and then a positive call to pitch in together and get the country back on track. Paul Ryan did a great job of it after the State of the Union, but he can’t be the only one out there. [ Read a brief history of the State of the Union addresses.]

Here’s an example of the kind of plain-English explanation that would make a big difference, courtesy of a website with the unfortunate name of Geekpolitics.com. The irony is that it’s from a speech made by Sen. Barack Obama on the Senate floor in 2006:

The fact that we are here today to debate raising America’s debt limit is a sign of leadership failure. It is a sign that the U.S. Government can’t pay its own bills. It is a sign that we now depend on ongoing financial assistance from foreign countries to finance our Government’s reckless fiscal policies.

Over the past 5 years, our federal debt has increased by $3.5 trillion to $8.6 trillion. That is “trillion” with a “T.” That is money that we have borrowed from the Social Security trust fund, borrowed from China and Japan, borrowed from American taxpayers. And over the next 5 years, between now and 2011, the president’s budget will increase the debt by almost another $3.5 trillion.

Numbers that large are sometimes hard to understand. Some people may wonder why they matter. Here is why: This year, the federal government will spend $220 billion on interest. That is more money to pay interest on our national debt than we’ll spend on Medicaid and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program. That is more money to pay interest on our debt this year than we will spend on education, homeland security, transportation, and veterans benefits combined. It is more money in one year than we are likely to spend to rebuild the devastated gulf coast in a way that honors the best of America.

And the cost of our debt is one of the fastest growing expenses in the federal budget. This rising debt is a hidden domestic enemy, robbing our cities and States of critical investments in infrastructure like bridges, ports, and levees; robbing our families and our children of critical investments in education and health care reform; robbing our seniors of the retirement and health security they have counted on.

Every dollar we pay in interest is a dollar that is not going to investment in America’s priorities.

The president can use almost the exact same language in his next speech to the American people, possibly even next week when he unveils his federal budget. So far, he’s sidestepped every chance to take on the deficit. And while the Pew numbers show that Americans aren’t there yet on how to reduce our massive deficits, this week’s Gallup poll shows that they disapprove of the way the president is handling this. And for good reason--people see that he talked about cutting spending at lunch with Republicans, then headed to Michigan to highlight more “investment” programs, also known as more spending. [ See photos of the Obamas behind the scenes.]

Recent history shows that voters reward politicians when they take courageous stands--look at the approval ratings for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie after he took on the teachers’ unions, or Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s landslide win after calling for raising the retirement age. If President Obama wants to become the “transformational leader” he has said he wants to be, it’s time to step up to the plate and walk the talk.

While everyone else is fighting over which narrow domestic spending program to cut, he should rise above and explain the crossroads we face as a nation, then propose reining in what Alan Simpson calls the “Big Four”: Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and the defense budget. He’ll look courageous and transformational, and it’s not too late to avert the “leadership failure” of which he once accused others.